It was a picture perfect day. Perhaps a touch too warm, Andy thought as he tilted his broad brimmed ranger’s hat to block out more of the sun. But the view was calendar worthy. He stood in a clearing at the top of Mt. Distant. The pines and fir trees framed Mt. Farther,-an even higher, snow-capped peak. Small, orange Empress Butterflies flitted about the meadow, a sure sign that autumn was not far behind.
Danaus glibbus, Andy said to himself, recalling the scientific name of the butterfly. It took a pinch of magic away from the moment, but it still made him feel good. Knowing an animal’s scientific name was like knowing a secret about them. Andy inhaled deeply and exhaled gratefully. Fifteen years as a Newburg Park Service Ranger, and he still couldn’t believe he got paid to be outside.
Andy took another deep breath and got back to work. He unlatched a hard plastic case he had lugged with him from the trail head and retrieved a drone controller from inside. Today he would finish the LIDAR scan of this section of Mt. Distant’s forest. The Newburg Park and Forest Service had reported an alarming amount of tree die off in the last few weeks. This was puzzling becuase tree die off was usually a problem that occurred slowly over time. To add to the confusion, there was no evidence of insect damage on the felled trees, and there had been plenty of precipitation in the last year. By all accounts, the forest should be healthy. It was Andy’s job to see why it wasn’t.
He flicked the switch on the back of the controller and the drone buzzed to life. Turning a toggle and pushing another at the same time lifted the drone into the air, and it floated just in front of him. He could see the concentration on his face mirrored back at him through the monitor on the handheld controller. He twisted his mouth in focus, and nudged the toggle a bit more. The drone rose higher and glided over the nearby treetops. Once it was cruising at a steady altitude, Andy flipped another switch on the back of the controller, turning on the pulse beam that would scan the forest beneath. After the drone had flown the length and width of this section, he would be able to see a topographical map of the forest that would show him how widespread the die off areas were.
Andy watched as the tree tops swept silently and smoothly through the monitor’s view. It was a very soothing visual. The warm sun on his back relaxed him further. He didn’t realize until it was too late that the drone had suddenly dropped from its required altitude.
Seeing the tree tops looming closer in the monitor, he reacted quickly and overcompensated. The drone went into a tailspin and dove into the forest. Andy cringed at the screen as the drone crashed into branch after branch on its way down. He caught a flash of brown fur on screen just before the device hit the forest floor and the monitor went black.
Perfect. He had wrecked a ridiculously expensive piece of government equipment AND scared a rare grizzly bear. The poor bear had probably run to the top of Mt. Farther by now. Sighing, Andy checked the last coordinates of the drone before it fell, secured his pack, and hiked into the woods to recover the lost machine.
Andy reached the specified coordinates about an hour later. He would have been there sooner had he not stopped and registered several dead trees along his way. Here the forest looked relatively healthy. A stand of lodgepole pines towered above him. Here and there, a sapling thrust hopefully through the carpet of brown pine needles that covered the ground. The sharp, citrus-like scent of pine greeted him with each step.
The drone should have fallen within fifty feet of the last coordinates. Andy began his search by walking in an outward spiral, keeping an eye out for the white plastic of the machine’s shell, and being careful not to bump into any tree trunks.
At last, about forty feet out, he found the drone. It looked like its camera was still intact, though its wings had been shorn off and the body was crumpled beyond repair. That wasn’t the only wreckage he found, however. About ten feet away he saw a boulder-sized mound of crushed steel next to a broken canister labeled InvisiTech. Andy huffed. Some of that falling garbage from Zinc Street must have hit something and ricocheted all the way up to Mt. Distant. “Those lab coats. Littering in my forest,” Andy muttered to himself. He’d have to clean up his own mess before he could deal with theirs.
Two crows called back and forth to each other over head before flying off through the trees. Andy watched them go and then bent to salvage what he could of the drone. But before he could right himself, a twig snapped and he was suddenly aware of a presence before him. Whatever it was shifted its weight over the leaf litter, and Andy could tell it was a heavy animal. A feeling of dread washed over him. Perhaps that bear hadn’t run all the way to Mt. Farther. If he had let himself get this close to a bear, he was in for some trouble.
Andy remained motionless so as not to stimulate the bear’s predatory response. He hoped that after some time, it would lose interest and go away. His heart pounded loudly in his chest, and he fought to control his breathing. A strange, awful smell began to emanate from the bear; a gagging stench of decaying meat.
Crouched in fear, Andy moved only his eyes to get a better look at the animal. He saw brown matted fur covering two massive paws, larger than any he had ever encountered. He struggled with the primal urge to bolt that sent prickles to the back of his neck. Feeling small and vulnerable, he slowly lifted his head to get a better look at what he was up against. The giant paws grew to two long, shaggy legs, much longer than he expected. This was no bear. The creature’s knees were well above the height of Andy’s head, and as his gaze moved farther up he realized that where its waist should have been there was… nothing.
Shocked by what he saw-or rather what he didn’t see- he let a small noise escape in surprise. This seemed to perturb the creature which then let out a high, keening shriek from somewhere. It seemed to echo all around. Andy made a quick move to the tranquilizer gun at his belt, but before he could bring it around, the creature kicked out with one of its powerful legs and struck him full in the chest. It was like being hit by a truck. Andy was thrown backward several feet where his head cracked against a tree trunk. The keening screech grew louder and louder, reverberating in his marrow. Then the world fell away into blackness.
Water dripped onto Andy’s hands and woke him some time later. He was slumped forward at the base of the tree, and it was raining steadily. Drool dribbled from his open lips. He couldn’t be sure whether the water dripping on his hands was from the drool or from the rain trickling down his nose. He wiped his mouth and straightened. Jolts of pain shot through his neck and head and reminded him why he had been unconscious in the first place. That horrifying creature was still out there. He needed to get out of the forest to some place safe. Lightning flashed and thunder quickly followed, encouraging Andy further. He pulled himself to his feet and leaned against the tree. His head throbbed, his chest felt like it had caved in, and his breathing was shallow.
Pulling out the flashlight at his belt, he scanned the area. Raindrops streaked through the beam and reflected the light back at him, obscuring his view. Andy could see no sign of the creature, but he found the wrecked drone again. He drew a compass from his pocket. If he headed east, he should run into a game trail that would lead to the clearing. From there, it would be easy to find the main park trail, and his truck would be about half a mile down.
A low, ominous growl sounded from behind him. No, in front of him. It seemed to be everywhere. Andy swung the flashlight around frantically, but saw nothing except rain and trees. The growl grew into an ear piercing shriek, and Andy darted east. The searing pain in his head and chest was overcome with adrenaline as he crashed through brush and hurtled fallen logs. Tree branches tore at him, scratching his face and stealing his hat, but at last he reached the game trail. He sprinted down the path until the trees gave way to a meadow.
Andy stopped then, doubling over and catching his breath as best he could with his limited lung capacity. Rain lashed his face, and thunder rolled overhead. The thunder spread and rumbled on rhythmically, until Andy realized it wasn’t thunder. He shone his flashlight down the game trail behind him, but the lightning was what fully illuminated the pair of monstrous legs barreling down the path, shaking the ground with each step.
Andy raced across the open field, the same field that was full of sunshine and butterflies that afternoon. When he reached the main park path, he didn’t slow. His throat and lungs burned, the pain was beginning to return and flare through his chest and head, and he stumbled and slipped on the muddy trail. He couldn’t hear the thunderous footsteps over the beating of his own heart and the violent storm, but he dared not stop.
Suddenly, he saw a pale beam of light sweep across the trail below him.
“Andy?!!?” called a voice trying to be heard over the wind. It was his fellow ranger, Sheryl.
“Sheryl!” Andy called back. He was blinded by her flashlight then, and nearly ran into her.
“Andy, oh thank heavens you’re alright. When you didn’t show at the station at sunset, I got worried.”
“Move, Sheryl! Run! We’ve got to get out of here!” Andy said, pulling her along. But Sheryl, not a small woman, refused to be budged.
“Andy, for cryin’ out. What’re you doin'?” A growl sounded from behind them and rose quickly to an outraged wail. Sheryl moved then, and fast. Together she and Andy sped down the trail, helping each other when they slipped or tripped as the yowl resounded all around them.
Finally, the forestry service air truck could be seen, lit haphazardly by their jostled flashlights. Sheryl unlocked the truck remotely, and Andy dove for the door. Sheryl slammed her door shut and started the truck. A loud thump was heard as the truck skidded sideways. Sheryl screamed, and Andy braced himself as she maneuvered the truck into the air. It could only rise so high though, and the creature slammed into the side again, roaring as it did. Sheryl pushed the engine to max and after a moment, the creature was outpaced. It sent one last, desperate moan, shrilling into the night.
“What in Bart’s Barrens was that?” Sheryl cried.
“I’m not sure,” Andy said panting, “but before it kicked me into unconsciousness all I saw were two big feet. It had no upper half. No upper half! It ended at the torso, Sheryl!”
“Are you saying you saw a headless Bigfoot?”
“Not just headless, there was nothing above the waist! Those cooky high-techs must have been working on more than just invisible trash a couple of weeks ago, but they didn’t coat the whole monster!”
“Andy, bigfoot doesn’t exist! Even if it existed on Earth this is Newburg and Bigfoot isn’t here. Even half a Bigfoot. We know every inch of this forest and every animal in this place. Bigfoot doesn’t exist.”
The dome light still aglow, Andy could see that Sheryl’s thick, black mascara had run down her face. Her petal pink lipstick was still perfectly in place though. “Thanks for coming to find me Sher,” Andy said, leaning against the door.
“Oh, Andy your head’s bleeding! We’re going straight to the hospital. We’ll file the report tomorrow morning.” Andy didn’t resist; he merely closed his eyes and tried to focus on the rain as it sprinkled the windshield.
The head of the Newburg Parks and Forestry Service received Andy’s statement which included a detailed description of the litter and the InvisiTech canister. A team, comprising of forest rangers, recycling center personnel, police, a levitation crew, and Master Athalard was dispatched to the area to investigate and remove debris.
Despite repeated advice against it, THE alchemist insisted on riding his solo hover. He was forced to abandon it halfway up the main park trail, however, when the path became too narrow for it to pass. Athalard walked and stumbled the rest of the way with his red robes hiked up in his fists so they wouldn’t be tainted by the muddy ground.
When the troupe reached the drone crash site, they fanned out. Police began their investigation and cataloged the scene by taking pictures with recently designed spectacles. The lenses measured the width of the pupil to determine the object of focus and were activated by a simple voice command. This allowed for the ability to take photographs completely hands-free, but they were an obvious hindrance to any undercover police operations. The inventors were still working on a stealthier model. A trio of police wandered about the wooded area repeating “photo, photo, photo.” Andy thought they looked like a bizarre flock of chickens, clucking and picking at the ground.
When the large mound of sky trash was rolled away, it revealed a watery, yellow substance that bubbled weakly and gave off a putrid odor. Athalard positively identified the puddle as toxic veskrilene, and removed the applicable vials stowed within his robes. With clear regret at the lack of admiration from the present crowd, Athalard transformed the foul chemical into shining gold. The levitation crew attached their spell to the gold to lift the hefty metal from the ground, but they unearthed more than just the small puddle that had originally been detected. Thanks to the rain, the veskrilene had spread over a wide area about nine feet in diameter. Leaves and forest debris concealed the liquid as it seeped into the soil. Athalard’s mix of potions had reached every molecule, however, and saplings and bits of brush were now rooted in a frozen, floating river of gold. The levitation crew worked carefully to maneuver the mass of gold through the dense woods, using slight hand movements to rotate it just so and avoid any tree damage.
Andy ducked as the amoebic-like form passed silently over his head, raining pine needles along its path. The flock of police and the gravity-defying gold were entertaining to him, but he was more concerned with finding out more about the creature that had attacked him. He hovered over Sheryl and Chuck-another fellow ranger-as they poured over the site.
“Have you found any fur? Or droppings?” Andy asked, knowing they didn’t, but hoping nonetheless.
Sheryl sighed. “You shouldn’t even be out here, Andy. You should be resting.”
“I’m good, I’m good. The nanorobots are nearly finished mending my clavical, I can tell,” he said, touching his chest and rolling his shoulder gingerly.
“Is that why you’re paler than a boiled potato?”
Andy answered with a wince.
“Look, we’ve searched all over the crash site and the path you took out of here. There’s nothing here, Andy. The storm washed away any useful details. All we’ve got are these two prints here,” she said and blew a lock of stray blond hair from her forehead.
Chuck, a tall man with a deep cleft in his chin, hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and said, “The prints are big, but the rain could have eroded away the edges… claw marks. It’s making the prints look bigger than they really are. I’d say they could be from a big grizzly. A very big one. But they have been known to get to 1500 pounds. You’re lucky to be alive, pal,” he clapped Andy once on the back, and he winced again.
Andy dropped to sit on a log. He shook his head in dismay. The creature that kicked him and chased him through the night was not a bear. Bears had bellies and forelegs and heads! He knit his brow in confusion.
“Heeeey. It’s alright!” Sheryl said, taking up the space next to him on the log. “Hey, maybe those nasty fumes from that Vaseline or whatever made you hallucinate and you fell. Uhh, you hit a log and then fell back and hit your head! The doc said you were concussed. Maybe you dreamed the whole thing.”
“But Sheryl, you were there! You heard the footsteps, the.. the.. shriek! You were with me!” Andy said emphatically.
“I heard something roar at us.. weird,” she said, and then chuckled. “Heck maybe the fumes got to me too. Something did hit our truck though and hard! That’s not out of the ordinary for an angry bear though. And I would be angry if you smashed a tiny plane into me. Huh!” And with that, she rose from the log, dusted off her behind and helped the police bag their evidence.
Andy sighed. A light breeze cooled his neck and whispered through the leaves above him. The dappled sunlight danced on the forest floor as the branches swayed. It was hard to believe anything frightening had happened here in this peaceful place. Maybe Sheryl was right.
Andy stood, and took one last glance at the muddy foot prints. (Snicker sniff) “Headless bigfoot,” he scoffed at himself. Then he turned and hiked back down the trail.
Evening fell over a redbrick municipal building in Midtown. A young woman in a smart, white suit carried the remains of a ruined drone down the empty hallways of the 4th floor. She knocked twice and entered the office at the end of the hall. Brushing past a corn plant and a full, towering bookshelf, the woman placed the drone on an imposing oak desk.
“As you requested, Mz. Bliss,” the young woman said.
“Thank you, Angelica,” said Mz. Bliss, and the woman departed.
The office was lined with windows displaying the flickering lights of bicycles, carriages, and the occasional hover car on the busy street below. Mz. Bliss turned her tufted leather chair away from the view, and toward the wreckage on her desk. She opened a compartment on the side of the drone, and placed the tip of her ring finger inside. After a moment, she felt the tell-tale tingle on her skin as the camera’s data was transferred to the communication ring on her finger.
Many people in Newburg had undergone genetic editing to rid themselves of disease. Some had taken the process a step further by manipulating their genes to allow information laden bacteria to pass safely along and through the skin cells to com-rings where the data could be processed and displayed.
It was a risky experiment, but Mz. Bliss felt it was worth it. This data was hers now, and hers alone. She twisted the blue quartz ring on her finger, and a vivid color display was projected in the air before her. Touching the ring again, the last footage of Andy’s fated drone played out on the display. Mz. Bliss watched as the drone plummeted from the sky, heard the crackle and scrape as it hit branch after branch, and witnessed a colossal screech and a smudge of brown fur just before the camera went black. She rewound and stopped. The paused image displayed two giant, hairy legs, nearly as thick as the tree trunks around them. Legs moving seemingly on their own, independent of torso and head.
Mz. Bliss narrowed her eyes at the projection and tapped a long, blue fingernail on the desk, slowly and thoughtfully. She pushed a button on the desk in front of her.
An agreeable voice spoke through the office intercom. “Yes, Mz. Bliss.”
“Get me the Liaison please, Angelica. I need to send a message.”